I’m riding the bus back home and looking out the window. The scenery is to my liking and perfect for some deep thought – mountains, dirt roads vanishing behind nearby hills or in the forest, occasional house, or river… I recall the assignment my therapist gave me to write 10 things I would say to introduce myself to an alien I have never met before. I already know that the real question of that assignment was to answer the question “Who are you?” More importantly, “Who am I?” What are my deepest motivations, traits, virtues, failings?
As usual, I interpreted that question differently – what is it about you that you think I might like to know? It is an automatic reinterpretation for me, cut deep into me in my childhood. You never showed who you truly were as a child where I lived. Every adult in the area felt quite justified to swat you like a fly, humiliate you in front of your friends, shame you, beat you, chase you while yelling threats behind you… and every mischief was met with generous amounts of all of the above. You were always praying you were never on the receiving end of it. And going to your parents was no guarantee of safety. If nobody “out there” caught you in your “misdeeds”, your parents would eventually find out and then you were in a special kind of trouble. With some parents, like mine, it was possible to negotiate; tell them your side of the story, even though it was seldom that your side of the story was believed. With others, nothing you could ever say exonerated you. So, if someone wanted to know something about you, you told them what you thought they wanted to hear. It’s simple, really. If you tell them the truth and they don’t expect the truth then they scream and shame and flail in your general direction.
So, if they ask you “Are you a good boy?” You say “Yes” and you don’t tell them about that one time when you dropped a cat off a balcony eight times to see if it really had nine lives, or that one time when you threw snowballs at someone’s window, or that one time you tore money into pieces, or that one time you got too curious and broke the needle on your mother’s sowing machine… God forbid if they ask something as serious as “Who are you?” Just the sound of that question coming out of another person’s mouth is a sign of serious trouble. Nobody ever really cares who you are – not even your parents – until they want to cause you trouble. You then give them your name and hope that it will be enough to get you off the hook.
But in the safety of a bus that is slowly moving through the mountains towards the highway nobody is going to make trouble. I can ask of myself to answer this question as honestly as I can without fear of trouble coming my way. And I think in silence.
Who am I?
I don’t know, so I ponder the depths and awesomeness of this question.
Aeons ago a star exploded. Make that a dozen stars, or a hundred. At that time this place, Earth, our homes, were barely whirlpools of dust in a dark spot of the universe. Aeons later the stardust from the exploded stars traveled the distance from where they were blown away from their origin star to the place where our solar system was already in its infancy. Maybe even later. That dust became part of our planet, it became an ingredient in living organisms on Earth, until finally, for a short period of time it converged to form the physical manifestation of ourselves. Of each one of us. And most of it didn’t even stay part of us for the duration of our lives. We eat food made of stardust and we shed our stardust-imbued cells throughout our lives and by the time we die only some small parts of us are made of the same matter that was there at our birth.
So when I ask myself “who am I”, in a strictly physical sense it is really stardust pondering its own nature, or perhaps the nature of this strange structure that it has temporarily formed.
I begin my new list of things I would use to introduce myself with “nudist” and “barefooter”. It is my tether; the last straw that keeps the person under the water alive. And I strain to look deeper at that person at the other end of the straw. It feels like a mask trying to figure out who is the person that wears it.
I remember how I once wrote on my CV that I am a problem solver. I put it on my list even though I’m not quite happy with it. I do like to solve problems, but there are some problems that I don’t like to solve. Actually, I might like to solve them, but have someone else worry about the implementation. So, I might not be someone who does something and then says “There, problem solved”, but I might be someone who looks at the problem and says “To solve it, you need to do X, Y and Z.” It might also not even be my solution, but something I googled and it appeared in results. And I’m quite happy to go back to reviewing the solution if a problem arises during its implementation. That is, if I can understand what went wrong in the first place. If someone comes to me and says “Hey, this solution is just wrong” it’s really irritating no matter how great their people skills. It gives no information, and it makes me no smarter.
It takes a great deal of concentrated focus to sometimes find the problem with a solution. Not unexpectedly, honesty about having made the error in the first place is crucial in promptly finding, addressing and solving that problem. And like I said in my previous posts, I’m a bloody liar. And my lies are creating problems for me to solve and I’m often busy solving problems that my lies have created. It’s a very self-contained circle. An infinite loop of sorts, although many solutions don’t cause any tangible problems down the road. And my nudism is also feeding into this loop. I go someplace to be naked and then I lie about where I have been. Coming up with a good lie is a problem. Sometimes no lie is good enough, so some steps need to be taken to ensure that it looks true. It’s sometimes an open-ended problem that can only be solved in the future, or somewhere else, or with the (unconscious) help of someone else.
Take this very trip with the bus, for example. What is the true motivation behind it? It’s not business, really. That’s what I told everyone. Yes, there is some work involved, but the real purpose is a very selfish one. This is the real purpose. To take the time to think. Because that’s what I am. I’m a thinker, and I live a lot of my life in my head – not always searching for solutions, but rather very often lost in thought.
But this trip is an open-ended problem. I can’t tell an effective lie to justify what I’m doing at a given moment, because I don’t know the conditions at home which my wife is expecting to hear about when I get home. So I stall, justifying my delayed responses with “I’m busy”. It’s a half-truth. I am busy, just not in the way she expects. I’m busy thinking, not busy at work. And although I never believed the end justified the means, that what I accomplish with this thinking will justify me being away from my wife and my kids for almost four days, but I do believe that I need this enough to be alone and I don’t know how to negotiate for it with my wife without her going bonkers.
So, I might not be a “problem solver”, even though that’s roughly what I do for living. Rather, I am a “solution finder”.
But the liar needs to die. He’s the “problem maker” and the “problem solver” is constantly busy solving his problems.
The liar is the extension of the coward, the one who is afraid to take responsibility for his own mistakes. The one who is scared to admit that “yes, I did throw snowballs at that man’s window” and “yes, I did throw the cat off the highest balcony of our house eight times” and “yes, I did tear money into pieces” and “yes, I did break the needle on your sowing machine, mom”, because of the dire consequences of all of those misdeeds, some of which did come to pass and weren’t as bad as expected. It was never the real misdeeds that were punished, the ones I did on purpose and with full knowledge that they were misdeeds; it was those stupid things like accidentally breaking a glass, or having a drawer fall apart just as I was opening it, or forgetting to do a chore I assigned (or worse, doing it first, then undoing it through play)… and the logic of it was simple – if those horrible things were consequences of these silly mistakes, then what kind of hell will break loose if my real sins come to light? And so the coward silently nudges the solution finder for a solution, solution finder offers the solution to the liar and the liar solves the problem by lying, even as honesty is the only path to redemption.
And the solution finder needs to stop finding solutions for the coward. The coward needs to die by being starved of those solutions and by facing the music of having the honest me tell the truth. And here I stumble upon a curious conundrum. I am not honest. I value honesty, but I practice it sparingly and with great effort. It does not come as naturally to me as lying. The coward-solver-liar trio are quite practiced in their craft of solving predicaments with lies. So what is it within me that now demands that I change who I am before I even fully know who I am? (And is it even possible to fully know oneself?)
The coward and liar are like ballast that’s keeping me submerged under the water. They give the solution finder meaningless problems to solve and the solution finder does occasionally require the services of the thinker. In fact, this whole ordeal with self-knowledge is part of one such thought process being performed by the thinker (with not insignificant interruptions), at the behest of the solution finder! So the thinker decided to employ the services of the trio like so:
The Thinker approaches the inseparable Coward-Solution Finder-Liar trio and tells them they all need to go on a trip. The Coward immediately objects “We can’t just go, the wife will go nuts!”
And so he tells the Solution Finder that he needs to take the wife into account, without telling her that it was the Thinker who made the request for the trip. The Coward is afraid to tell anyone about the Thinker. “It has to be work-related, that’s the only thing that would work.”
And so the Solution Finder finds that it is an open-ended problem which will get solved as the partial solution plan is set into motion and new information starts streaming in. The Coward, who always had the Thinker shoved into the background and always considered him subordinate to himself grumbles because he’s now too cowardly to say no to the Thinker. Something has changed in the balance of power between the Thinker and the Coward recently.
The Coward is nervous as the trip continues, but the Thinker says, “Be quiet, I need to think!”
As he thought, the Coward cowered, the Solution Finder rested as he saw his solution put into motion and the Liar lied the necessary lies. The Coward was finally relieved when things finally all fell into place, but kept worrying he now won’t have the time to keep up with all the lies that needed to be told.
And then the Thinker came back and told the Solution Finder about how he’s being used by the Coward and the Liar. And the Solution Finder found a new solution, similar to the sentiment that’s been present within me for some time now:
The Coward and the Liar need to die.
I can feel the coward in me protesting. I write this text restlessly, biting my nails, shaking my legs. I dread the time when truth will finally get out. The solution finder finds a partial solution and calms the coward down, but the coward knows that he has now become undesirable and that what is to follow for him is inevitable.
I focus on the coward now because he’s the real culprit. The thinker is coming back with a thought that maybe the liar can be spared – after all, he merely speaks what the solution finder needs spoken for the corrupt requests of the coward to work. The liar might as well be merely a speaker who is all too often asked to speak lies.
And what redemption is there for the coward? Is he merely a protector of some kind gone bad by the conditions he was growing in?
These questions come from someone I have not yet mentioned. Meet the curious me.
As I realized that curiosity is one of my traits, I thought about how all my traits are interconnected and manifest in everything I do. As I go on my hikes naked, the coward revels in solution finder’s ability to keep me hidden from sight of others, the liar has a heyday when I lie about where I’ve been (and in what state of undress), the thinker can get lost in thought when I sit down, the curious part of me always wonders what could be found if I take some path in the forest that I have never taken before.
And the adventurer in me takes that path and finds out.
This is a trait that my wife recognized in me. She was reading a book and asked – probably related to what she was reading – what are the three things I liked about her.
Needless to say, the coward jumped to his feet, his eyes wide and alert for some kind of trap. Indeed he is the protector of sorts, jumping at the slightest hint of trouble, instructing the solution finder to tread carefully. The solution finder found the things (although the thinker later returned with the instruction that one of the things that was told was not really something I liked) and the speaker spoke. To the best of everyone’s knowledge at the time, no lies were told.
As the conversation went on, I asked my wife the same question. One of the things she said about me was that she liked that I was adventurous. I was first surprised because that’s exactly what I am and then I was surprised that she noticed and that she actually liked it.
And so here is who I am:
- Solution Finder
- Liar (Speaker?)
- Coward (Protector?)
As I think about this list, I notice some of these traits stem from some others. Adopting a barefoot lifestyle was as much an adventure as it was curiosity. How would others react? What do the various surfaces feel like? Is it healthy? A thinker is in many ways a solution finder, but there’s an aspect of him that doesn’t really answer to the solution finder – he likes to make up stories. So am I also creative?
The thinker is out on that one.
Liar/Speaker and Coward/Protector will have to be looked into as well.
For now it is sufficient to say that this may not be the essential list of my characteristics – of who I am and how I would introduce myself to others. It may not even be complete. It’s just something I managed to find out about myself one day on a bus ride when I lied to my wife and my children about why I was going away.